Teachers Mariela Aguirre, left, and Adriana Alvarez will participate in research flights aboard NASA's Stratosphere Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. (Special to the Times)
NASA has tapped two Ysleta Independent School District teachers to research the universe from Earth's stratosphere.
Adriana Alvarez and Mariela Aguirre, teachers at Alicia R. Chacon International School, a dual-language magnet campus, are among 26 teachers nationwide who will participate in research flights aboard NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA.
Through the space agency's Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, Alvarez and Aguirre will team with professional astronomers to conduct airborne observations aboard SOFIA, a modified Boeing 747SP jetliner equipped with a 100-inch-diameter telescope. At altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet, NASA said, researchers on the plane can analyze infrared light to study the formation of stars and planets; the chemistry of interstellar gases; the composition of comets, asteroids and planets; and the supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies.
For a week during the next school year, the teachers will undertake two research flights out of NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., where SOFIA is based.
Alvarez, a first-grade teacher, said they have not received details on the research assignments. She said they will begin an online physics and astronomy course through the University of Montana in February in preparation for the project, which NASA launched last year.
Scientists later in the year will determine the astronomical targets for the teachers, and training
will focus on an "encapsulated" infrared astronomy course, said Nicholas Veronico, SOFIA Science Center public affairs officer.
"We're not as sensitive as a space telescope, but we can look at things that are too bright for a space telescope and we can see into those areas," Veronico said. "That's one of the reasons we have a bunch of scientists lined up to use our telescope. Basically this is the only one of its kind."
The teachers said they plan to use what they learn from the flights to spark interest for science in their students.
"When the students are in the lower grades, they tend to be very excited about science, but as they get older they start losing interest," said Aguirre, a seventh-grade science and social studies teacher. "That's when they struggle. Students overall nationally are falling behind in the sciences, and this is a good way to motivate them in science."
NASA chooses teachers for the program, which is in its second year, through a competitive, peer-reviewed selection.
Teachers submitted applications detailing how they would use what they learned from the research flights in their classrooms to increase understanding in science, technology, engineering and math, said astronomer Dana Backman, manager of SOFIA's education and public outreach programs.
As part of their classroom plan, Alvarez and Aguirre said they would use concepts they learned to create professional development programs for local teachers, have seventh- and first-grade students collaborate on an astronomy lesson plan, and build a website for their school that documents their trip.
The teachers are already brainstorming how the research will apply to their instruction techniques.
Alvarez's first-graders study in a class about observing celestial areas in the night sky, and Aguirre's seventh-grade science students focus on solar systems.
The trip will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Ysleta school district teachers.
"To actually sit on a NASA flight that goes up to the stratosphere next to a professional astronomer helping them conduct research, I don't even have the words to tell you what that means to me," Alvarez said. "Very few teachers in the whole nation will have that opportunity."